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Gossip and Life After Death #673

04/16/2021 05:50:00 PM

Apr16

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Tazria-Metzora
Gossip and Life After Death

Perhaps the most frequently asked question in Judaism is: “What happens to us after we die?”

If only we knew. And, like most questions within Judaism, our rabbis have posited as many answers as there are “stars in the sky.”

But one answer touches me perhaps more than any other. And it comes from one of our greatest Kabbalistic masters, Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1574), otherwise known as the Ari.

Within the Kabbalistic tradition, heaven is not a place populated by butterflies, rainbows and harp music.

It is where we live with our angels, who emanate from the spiritual energy we produce. The question is, asked the Ari, in that world of truth, will there be more good angels than bad angels to accompany us?

Often, when we read this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora, there is a tendency to turn away from the many descriptions of bodily functions, fluids and diseases. 

The Torah, in its attention to public health, eerily parallels current pandemic guidelines. It calls for someone who contracts a skin disease called tzara’at to mask up over their upper lip and to quarantine from the community for 14 days.

But what most interested the Ari, was the cause of tzara’at and its potential link to — lashon hara — gossip, slander and words that insult and vilify others.

Later in the Biblical narrative, Moses’ sister, Miriam, contracts this disease, and our rabbis note that it appears soon after she gossips against Moses’ new wife, who hailed from Cush, a northern African nation.

Miriam is banished from the camp for 14 days, providing her with time — our rabbis speculate — to heal physically and spirituality.

But the Ari sees more. He envisions a world where what comes out of our mouths — especially gossip and destructive words — actually takes physical shape and follows us through our lifetimes and into the world to come.

Our tradition has a certain view of angels. Some are spiritual beings, who carry out God’s instructions. But there are other spiritual entities who take shape through our words.

If you can imagine the energy of both positive and negative words surrounding us through our lives, then you can better understand how our mystic tradition looks at angels — and the world to come.

Everyone knows the feeling that follows when lashon hara is spoken. Indeed, this world is moving in an unacceptable direction, where mocking peoples’ lives, their physical appearance, their misfortunes and their inadequacies has become public sport.

Usually, speaking ill of another person — engaging in lashon hara — serves only to heighten superficiality. And, indeed, when we give in to that shallow part of us, the Torah teaches that we become afflicted with an external disease.

Hence, the connection to tzara’at

So many, who have experienced near death experiences emphatically state that they observed “the events of my life flash by.” The Kabbalists believe that in that world of truth, the full body of our own behavior will be reviewed and criticized based on our actions and our use of words.

Our good angels will bring us peace, knowing we have done the right thing so many times. Our bad angels will prosecute us based on the times we have not.

Therefore, why not aspire in this lifetime to build a world that gives life to more good angels?

Each of us wants to grow and develop into something better. We aspire toward a life of meaning.

But when we gossip — when we attack others, when we focus on the faults of someone else, we state: “I am fine — it’s the other person who is wrong.”

And in that, we stagnate — if not regress.

The riff followed by some of our greatest rabbis, based on this week’s somewhat unpleasant Torah reading, forms a connection between our physical and spiritual health.

Keep too much stress inside, and your heart may falter.

Fail to isolate or mask yourself during sickness, and you may infect others.

Use words to hurt or destroy, and those bad angels will not only misdirect you during this lifetime — but will also become your prosecutors in the world to come.

I can’t guarantee that the Ari’s teaching is entirely accurate, but it speaks deeply to me as we commit to break away from a world that increasingly uses words to destroy rather than build.

I believe that the Ari’s teaching is good advice for this world, for once we are gone, there is no way to correct or erase the negative words that sometimes leak from our lips. Indeed, once those words are spoken, the feathers cannot be put back into the pillow.

There are so many ways to communicate these days — so many words surround us. Can a “little” lashon hara hurt anyone? Yes. The Talmud teaches that each word we speak possesses the potential to pierce someone’s soul like an arrow.

Each of us has been hurt by gossip. The Torah instructs us to honor others as ourselves.

Even more reason to follow the Ari’s teaching. May each of us live this life to the fullest — bringing light to others through our words and deeds.

And, let only our best angels follow us into the world to come, for ultimately, we are the judges of our own truth.

In the end, we will ask ourselves, have our words been kind?

And which angels will follow us into that mysterious but inevitable world to come?

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

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